50th Anniversary Of The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

  • Jenny Shipley
Prime Minister

St Mary of the Angels, Boulcott Street, Wellington

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is both a mirror of and a challenge to our common humanity.

It is an inspiration for pursuing our highest ideals and an indictment of where we have yet failed to achieve them.

Its enduring power to inspire, guide and challenge us is undiminished after half a century.

The values reflected in the Declaration were not new when it was drawn up fifty years ago.

Those values extend back thousands of years and are found across all the world's major cultures and religious traditions.

The Book of Deuteronomy tells us that God "makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly...... He loves the foreigners who live with our people and gives them food and clothes, so then, show love for those foreigners because you were once foreigners....."

Buddha exhorts his followers to "cherish all living beings.....and cultivate a boundless goodwill toward the entire world".

The Koran teaches that "true piety is.....to give of one's substance to kinsfolk and orphans, the needy, the traveller, beggars, and to ransom the slave".

Confucius taught that "what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others".

The Declaration itself was the product of debates between a uniquely representative group of scholars.

The Declaration they produced, to quote UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, was "adopted in the shadows of Auschwitz and Nagasaki, and on the doorstep of the Cold War".

Today, we face challenges no less stark than our forebears fifty years ago.

With today's communications and technology we live in a global village.

Whether the news for our neighbour be good or bad, we share in it, regardless of whether our neighbour is next door, in the next street, or on the other side of the world.

Our generation, and those who follow us, will never again be able to plead distance and ignorance as a defence of inaction when the rights of our neighbours are abused.

The challenge for our generation is how we respond to that new reality.

It is easy to be pessimistic about human rights.

There are those who fear that in a mass media age, exposure to injustice will dehumanise us all, that the cries of the orphaned child and the grieving parent will become just another TV image, sandwiched between cereal advertisements.

I see no sign of that.

Local concern for our global community is alive and well, here in New Zealand and around the world.

That concern and the actions that flow from them, by individuals, groups, by Governments and the United Nations, is an ongoing legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration is a living document. It has meaning and significance for successive generations.

The rights it upholds are universal because their roots lie in all cultural traditions.

Yet it is also up to each culture and country to make those values their own and to own them.

In the words of Kofi Annan "rights must find expression in the language of the people they protect."

Words only have power where they are internalised and then result in action.

The question of what actions are taken when, by whom, and whether they are adequate to uphold human rights will always be the subject of debate, particularly within democracies like our own.

In New Zealand, the Government and the community must continue to debate how we bring the declaration to life in a way that is relevant for us as we establish our rights and define our responsibilities.

The Declaration itself, in Article 29, states that "everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of [their] personality is possible".

That same Article also affirms "limitations as are determined by law" for securing "due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society".

In short, rights and responsibilities sit alongside each other. In a democracy all of us share in the task of defining the balance between the two.

There is an inherent tension between the universality of human rights, national sovereignty as upheld in the United Nations Charter, and the limits of influence and direction that any one nation state has over others.

None of us like to see abuses of human rights in other countries.

All of us would like to see recalcitrant countries lift their standards of human rights observance.

We must bring pressure to bear when we can in order to see progress made.

But there are limitations on what we can do short of direct military action.

Even comprehensive sanctions, as we are seeing in Iraq, will not of themselves depose a dictator and the accompanying suffering for the innocent people affected may be very high.

We must not let these complexities overwhelm us.

New Zealand's human rights record is one we can be justifiably proud of.

It was a New Zealand initiative, fifty years ago, which proposed, successfully, the inclusion in the UN Charter of provisions which enshrined the protection and promotion of human rights as a legitimate concern between nation states.

In the subsequent decades, successive New Zealand Governments have worked bilaterally, regionally and in the United Nations to pursue those concerns.

We may be a small country but we think for ourselves and we have brought to our international diplomacy a consistent advocacy of human rights.

We shall continue to raise human rights directly, face to face, with those countries with whom we have concerns.

And we shall continue to back words with actions.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission is helping develop human rights institutions in our region. They are to be commended for this ongoing work.

Advocacy abroad demands action at home.

As a nation, we have and continue to make significant progress in addressing human rights issues.

I am very proud of this Government's record over the last ten years in settling Treaty claims issues, in extending equity through the Bill of Rights, and in substantially widening the grounds of discrimination covered by the Human Rights Act in 1993.

These changes have made a great difference for many in our society. We continue to work on the extent to which we can make all new and existing laws and regulations consistent with the Human Rights Act.

Human rights has to be an inclusive debate.

There is space for all voices.

I welcome the interest and key role played by non-Governmental organisations and individuals, both in the work you do, and the advice and criticism that is offered to Government in the area of human rights.

If, sometimes, the Government appears slow in our response, it reflects the volume and, shall I say, the "vibrancy" of the counsel you offer us.

It is one of New Zealand's great strengths, as a small smart nation, that we are familiar enough with each other to talk frankly and freely about issues that concern us deeply.

No one has a monopoly on wisdom and we need to continually look beyond the public sector to get insights and advice on what we are doing right, and where we can do better.

We also need to build consensus as to where we move next.

If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights teaches us one thing, it is that we are bound to each other in our hopes, our vulnerabilities and in our sense that there are values which so transcend our diversity as to give us a sense of common humanity.

Nothing is more precious, or important, than building on that which makes us human.

Let us celebrate the fifty years of development and progress since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Let it provide the mirror and the challenge to our common humanity.

If we are indeed formed in the image of God, however our different faiths may understand that concept, then I have no doubt, as the Declaration states, that protecting and promoting the "inherent dignity......and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" is indeed the foundation of "freedom, justice and peace in the world."

Contact Details

Technical details, General Manager Policy, Roger Toleman, 498 0628 Media interviews, Senior Private Secretary, Bridie Wilkinson, 471 9974 Copies of the document, Alexis Park, 472 1253